Camper Van Beethoven

Music Features Camper Van Beethoven
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David Lowery is the lead singer and chief lyricist for two well-known rock bands: Camper Van Beethoven, which he co-founded in 1983, and Cracker, which he co-founded in 1991. Ever since the first band resurrected itself from the dead in 1999, the two groups have co-existed, often touring in tandem with overlapping personnel. And yet, for all that, the two acts are very different from one another—in their approach to music-making and in the aural results. One would never confuse La Costa Perdida, Camper Van Beethoven’s first studio album in nine years, with a Cracker record.

For one thing, Camper is a democracy where all five members contribute to the songwriting. The result is a head-swimming swirl of influences, including California psychedelia, European folk music, ‘60s pop-rock, ‘70s art-rock and irreverent satire—all of which can be heard on La Costa Perdida. By contrast, Cracker is a duocracy run by Lowery and lead guitarist Johnny Hickman, who write all the songs and hire the ever-shifting members of the rhythm section. The result is a more concentrated focus on well-made roots-rock songs.

“Just the way the bands are structured makes a big difference,” Lowery claims. “Things are easier in Cracker because Johnny and I have this classic lead singer and lead guitar dialogue; he plays for a while and then I sing for a while. It’s not like that with Camper. Everyone brings in bits of songs. Greg writes very strong melodies, then Victor adds different melodies on bass, and Jonathan plays these countermelodies. There’s so much melody going on in Camper that it’s often difficult for me to know what to sing or when to sing. It’s a good problem to have.”

Lowery’s referring to guitarist Greg Lisher, bassist Victor Krummenacher and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, all members of the most famous Camper line-up, which recorded that group’s second, third and fourth albums between 1985 and 1988. That line-up’s fifth member, Chris Pedersen, lives in Australia now and rejoins the band only occasionally. He plays, for example, on just two of the new album’s songs; Michael Urbano drums on the other eight tracks.

“Most of the time, Camper Van Beethoven develops a whole instrumental soundscape before we add any vocals,” Lowery continues. “So I sing against some very complicated parts that would be instrumental passages for any other bands. I have to take part of what Jonathan or Greg are playing and then break away at certain points to sing against what they’re doing. Cracker doesn’t work that way. I’m putting the vocal melody in first, and Johnny’s taking off from what I’m doing or building his own space. It’s like Mick and Keith.” He pauses to laugh. “Camper is more like five annoying people all vying for attention.”

Camper Van Beethoven had been hired last summer to play its most famous album, 1989’s Key Lime Pie, which yielded the No. 1 Modern Rock Track “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” in the front yard of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. A big rainstorm wiped out the original date and instead of canceling, the group decided to hang around in California and play the following weekend. While they were waiting, they decided to work on some songs for the overdue new Camper album.

“Playing live is weirdly overrated,” argues Lowery. “It’s not always your 20th anniversary show at the Fillmore or a sold-out show in Philadelphia; there are also a lot of Monday nights in Tulsa—no offense to Tulsa, but you know what I mean. But Camper loves recording. We love making up songs, and we’ll do that as long as we can. Camper has a different way of making songs than Cracker, and I really miss it if we don’t do it for a while. I enjoy making albums with those guys, because it’s a different style of writing.”

Lowery and Segel had driven together through the farms in Salinas Valley to the Big Sur show, and on the way they alternated listening to the Beach Boys’ Holland album and Norteno music on the local Spanish-language radio stations. It was a typical Camper combination of inland valleys and coastal rain forest, of exotic ethnic music and psychedelia-gone-wrong. Those four influences shaped La Costa Perdida.

“We were amazed that the tuba had made a comeback in Norteno music,” Lowery recalls, “and that so much of Holland sounded like Pavement songs to us. That set the tone for the whole album. Camper Van Beethoven became obsessed with albums where a great band made a wrong left turn by trying something experimental. Like Tusk. We said, ‘Wow, that’s a weird album.’

“It’s almost as if Camper Van Beethoven became a band in the ruins of some ruined civilization, the ‘70s back-to-the-country experiment in California. Holland is the perfect example of that; it’s like the half-ruined shell of the Roman Coliseum. We wanted to reinterpret that experiment in terms of our time, which was post-punk. Of course, to the 20-year-old kid listening on Stereogum, Camper is as much an ancient civilization as the Beach Boys.”

During the waiting-for-the-Big-Sur-sun sessions, all five members contributed bits and pieces of music that they’d been harboring. Segel, for example, had a chord progression that kept sidestepping through hidden doorways into unexpected chords. It reminded Lowery of the early-‘60s elegant pop tunes that Burt Bacharach and Hal David were writing for Dionne Warwick and that Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn were writing for Frank Sinatra.

The chord changes inspired Lisher to play a jazzier style of guitar than he usually does, and the arrangement developed a pulsing rhythm of alternating lulls and bursts of activity. That reminded Lowery of waves; the waves reminded him of the Beach Boys, and he wrote dreamy beach lyrics to a surf-ballad guitar part. The band added ocean sound effects to the intro and outro, and it became “A Love for All Time,” the album closer.

“I tried to write it like Sammy Cahn,” says Lowery, “but because it’s a Camper Van Beethoven song, it has to have conspiracy theory and ethnic music in there, so I sing about ‘mariachi with strings and flying saucers.’ It’s one of the more complex things we’ve ever done—even the bass drum and the toms are tuned to the melody. Jonathan and his wife did all those backing vocals, which are truly awesome.”

As Camper Van Beethoven worked on a pool of 17 songs, they noticed that nearly half of them referenced California in one way or another. It was a ready-made theme for the album, so they finished those songs and saved the others for the next project. The Beach Boys’ unfulfilled visions of a surfers’ utopia were part of that California picture, of course, but so were mariachi bands, UFO sightings, the names of Mexican-American girls, barefoot hippies, oil field workers, redneck ranchers, wailing ambulances and more. The band was able to paint the whole tableau because they had personally experienced so many aspects of the Golden State.

Lowery, Krummenacher, Hickman and guitarist Chris Molla all grew up in Redlands, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when it was still an isolated town in the no man’s land between metropolitan Los Angeles and the desert (it has since been swallowed up by the L.A. suburbs). There they all played in garage-rock bands such as Sitting Duck, the Estonian Gauchos and Camper Van Beethoven & the Border Patrol. When they went off to college at the University of California Santa Cruz, Lowery, Krummenacher and Molla met Segel, who had grown up among the farms of the Central Valley. He joined the band, which shortened its name to just three words.

“We grew up on the edge of the Western desert,” Lowery emphasizes. “Redlands and the Inland Empire is this polyglot place where people have immigrated to from all over—from Mexico, Texas, the Philippines, Kansas, El Salvador, Michigan and everywhere else because it was California and there were lots of jobs. Redlands is full of cattle ranches and decaying industrial plants.

“Everything was more extreme; it was too cold in the winter and way too hot in the summer. That environment, where everybody is from somewhere else, produces that marginalized perspective on things. There are two other bands from the same area who had already taken much the same outsider approach to rock ‘n’ roll as Camper Van Beethoven: David Lindley’s Kaleidoscope and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

“That was the first imprint,” he continues. “Santa Cruz is the second imprint. Santa Cruz was always 65 degrees, and people were walking around barefoot between the redwoods by the ocean. It was like Eden. If you had a bike and a bus pass, you could live a slacker lifestyle, working in a coffee shop and playing in a band. That’s where we got this mix-and-match approach. We weren’t real hippies; we were fake hippies. We were ironic hippies.”

Once they got out of school, it dawned on the members of Camper Van Beethoven that they were never going to be a convincing punk band. All the punk pioneers had already come and gone; they had all been urbanites from Manhattan, London and Los Angeles, and Inland Empire kids were doomed to playing catch-up. The Campers decided to turn that to their advantage.

As outsiders, they didn’t have to swear an oath of loyalty to hardcore punk dogma; they didn’t have to dress the part or follow the formula. They didn’t have to be fast, hard and angry all the time; they could play slow waltzes, grow their hair long and make fun of moshers. It shouldn’t have been surprising that the college-radio hit off their 1985 debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory was the irreverent “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”

“If we had followed the party line,” Lowery argues, “we would have been lost in the crowd. Plus it wouldn’t have been fun. We never thought we’d be successful—we said we would, but we never quite believed it—so why not enjoy ourselves? We adopted a hippie persona as a way to stand out when we played with the Minutemen and the Butthole Surfers. And we did stand out at those shows—to the point that people wanted to kick our ass. I hear people talk about bands being dangerous and edgy, and I have to laugh. Try playing a really slow version of the Black Flag song “Wasted” in front of 200 Dead Kennedy skinhead fans in Chico, California.”

It’s 30 years since Camper Van Beethoven formed in 1983 and they remain just as playful, though with hair that’s shorter, thinner and grayer. They can still capture the sense of dislocation of a kid from the Valley venturing out to the California coast. “I was too high for the love-in,” Lowery sings. “I work on my car at the drive-in.” Later in the same song, “Too High for the Love-In,” he warbles of walking barefoot through the redwoods, only to be bitten on his heel by a snake.

For all the fun they have at the expense of Golden State stereotypes, however, the band is still capable of heartfelt affection for their old stomping grounds, especially on the seven-minute, psychedelic-pop, mariachi epic, “Northern California Girls.” When the fiddle-and-choir-swathed voice of an old girl friend croons, “Throw away your snow boots; throw away your parka—Lord, you know I always kept you warm,… come home from Brooklyn,” you would have to tie yourself to a mast to resist her siren call.

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